From Issues in Graduate Education: CGS Forum on Making the Transition to a Professional Career in the December 2008 issue of Perspectives on History

From Graduate School to Public History

Melissa Jane Taylor, December 2008

Many graduate schools do not provide training for jobs outside the academy, which means that the transition to a public history position can require a lot of change. Despite some challenges, I have found a rewarding career outside the academy, and thought I would share what I have learned about making the transition from traditional graduate training to a career in public history.

The challenges of transitioning to a public history job do require some time for adjustment, but they are not insurmountable. In this essay I will discuss my own particular circumstances. I work at the Office of the Historian at the U.S. Department of State, where our primary responsibility is the production of the documentary series, Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS). The biggest challenges that I have encountered are cubicle culture, time expectations and structure, and less vacation. I work in a cubicle, which can be a challenge. Most of us do not imagine that we will be relegated to the land of cubicles once we have a PhD, but depending on your office environment, a cubicle may be a reality for the better part of your career. This is not an impossible problem. You get to know your colleagues well, which can add to collegiality. In addition, the collaborative nature of our work is aided by an open office environment.

Another challenge comes from the structure of the workday. I have, essentially, a nine-to-five job, and I am expected to be in the office each day during certain hours. I have lost some of the flexibility that the academy affords, and the daily schedule is more structured. However, the office does offer “flextime” providing some variety in my work schedule, such as a compressed work week. This allows for me to work longer days in order to have every other Friday off. The new time structure does have some advantages, one of which is that when I leave my job at the end of the day, my work stays at the office. I am not grading at night or preparing for the next day’s lectures—my time after I leave the office is genuinely my own. The last major challenge that I encountered in the transition was the change in the amount of unstructured time. Academics have a fair amount of unstructured time in which they can do their own research, get lectures written, and even take the occasional vacation. However, I do not have significant amounts of unstructured time (summers, mid-semester breaks, and end-of-the-semester breaks) in which I can expect to get my own research done. The lack of unstructured time has caused me to alter how I do my own research and how I envision vacation. With regard to vacation, I get 13 days of annual leave each year (in addition to federal holidays and sick leave). The number of days of annual leave will increase the longer that I am in the federal government. The upshot of having annual leave is that I can take my vacation whenever I want—that means that if I do not want to be on vacation during the summer when most places are packed and prices tend to be more expensive anyway, it does not mean that I forgo vacation for the year. The downside, such as it is, is that I have to be far more diligent about setting aside time to get my personal research done.

As a result of the lack of unstructured time, one of the things that became most important to me as I transitioned was good time management. My personal research is done on my own time—it is not a factor in my promotion and it is not an expectation of my office that I continue to do personal research. This is not necessarily the case for all public history positions, so if research is important to you, you should definitely inquire about the research expectations when you interview for a public history position. Despite not being required to do personal research, I continue to pursue it. However, since time is not built into my work schedule for it, I have to be conscientious about setting aside time to get my research done. It also means that I have to use the time effectively once I have it, because it may be weeks before I am able to have another full day at the archives or another full day to dedicate to writing. As a result, my research now takes a little longer to get completed, but this gives me the opportunity to be a bit more reflective about my topic. I enjoy doing research because I want to and on my own timeframe, without having it linked to my promotion.

Despite the challenges of transitioning, there are several things that eased my transition from graduate school to a career in public history. First, my work is largely research-based. If nothing else, graduate school should teach you to become a great researcher. Therefore, my daily work makes use of the training I received in graduate school. Second, by the time you’ve completed your dissertation, you’ve taken on a major project and shown that you have managed your time in order to see it to completion. Such skills are transferable outside of the academy. The time management skills and ability to complete major projects are critical in my job. As an editor for FRUS, I am required to get my research and editing done in a timely fashion, in order to make the volumes available to the public. The skills I learned as a graduate student are critical for this process. Third, documentary editing, to a certain extent, is an apprenticed trade. My office provided me with great on-the-job training, which gave me a leg-up when I began my first volume. Additionally, my colleagues encouraged me to consult with them, and their expertise has provided me with a wealth of valuable information.

Public history offers, in my estimation, as many options as the academy—just different options. Many historians in my office, including myself, remain involved in academic-type work: we teach at local universities in the evening, we make presentations at conferences, we write articles and books. We do all of these things by choice. In addition, we are public servants who provide the official government history on U.S. foreign policy to both the U.S. government and the public. I do research full time now for FRUS, which has been in print since 1861. The production of the series is a huge collaborative effort, with each historian being responsible for at least one volume per presidential administration or substantial potions thereof. I do not think we often think—as historians—about collaborative efforts, but it is great to be involved in one, and it provides a wonderful pool of knowledge form which we can draw. One of the things I enjoy most about my job is that I learn something new every day and as a result of researching new topics frequently, I am constantly learning. Not every transition into public history will be the same as mine—each office operates differently. However, hopefully this will provide you with some examples of both the joys and challenges of a career in public history.

—Melissa Jane Taylor is a historian in the Office of the Historian at the U.S. Department of State. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Office of the Historian, the U.S. Department of State, or the U.S. government.